A Strategic Review of “Strategic Ambiguity”

A Strategic Review of “Strategic Ambiguity”

A Strategic Review of “Strategic Ambiguity”

Before retiring at the end of April as the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), Admiral Philip Davidson waded into the sensitive issue of whether to jettison “strategic ambiguity.” The debate ironically focuses on a US role in an unwanted conflict rather than in a preferred peaceful outcome for the geo-strategic question of Taiwan. Drifting from ambiguity to clarity is framed as a radically dangerous departure or a needed daring update in policy. Actually, this question is not bold enough. A strategic review that involves Congress is needed to protect US and allied interests in Taiwan as it faces China’s threats. Here are three main reasons why policymakers should focus on strategic success, not just ambiguity.

Congress Cites Concerns

This controversy is the latest in cyclical criticisms of “strategic ambiguity.” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines assessed that China would see a shift away from that approach to be “deeply destabilizing,” testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee in April. Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden’s Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs at the National Security Council, just expressed opposition to “strategic clarity” due to its “significant downsides.”

Taiwan is not an ally, given the termination of the Mutual Defense Treaty with the Republic of China (ROC) at the end of 1979. [1] Observers see uncertainty for both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Washington keeps Beijing afraid of potential US military intervention against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) if it attacks Taiwan. Washington leaves Taipei unsure of any “blank check” if it seeks de jure independence that would make waves.

Congress has contributed to these debates, especially after the 1995-1996 crisis in the Taiwan Strait. [2] In May 2020, Representative Mike Gallagher launched this current controversy with his clarion call to “stand with Taiwan.” He has argued for an end to “strategic ambiguity” and, instead, “a full-throated defense of Taiwan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” with a “declaratory statement of policy committing the United States to the defense of Taiwan.” He introduced the Taiwan Defense Act to end “strategic ambiguity” and “draw a clear red line through the Taiwan Strait.”

Other Members of Congress have joined this critical congressional catalyst for more careful consideration of policy. Many reasons justify keeping or removing “strategic ambiguity.” But Congress should dive deeper into how to navigate the increasingly hazardous Taiwan Strait.

Admiral Davidson amplified attention to this debate. He testified that this part of policy should be “reconsidered,” answering Senator Rick Scott during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. In his written testimony, he reiterated a familiar formula, namely, that “the United States continues to support the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues in a manner consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.” He warned that “the cross-Strait situation is of increasing concern given the harsh rhetoric from Beijing toward Taipei.”

One could say that the Admiral slipped beyond INDOPACOM’s purview in talking about national policy. Nonetheless, he consistently executed his duties in a thoughtful, serious way with advisors who have offered informed counsel, particularly about Taiwan. He also kept the Strategic Focus Group (SFG) on China that a predecessor, Robert Willard, set up in 2010.

Davidson’s thoughtful testimony stands out due to a drought in full reassessment of strategy. A suggestion to reconsider “strategic ambiguity” seems shocking but is actually not bold enough. The lack of a post-1979 strategic review (with only one partial policy review in 1994) is ironic, given China’s changes and the global stakes for allies, prosperity, and war (potentially nuclear).

Suggestion Skims the Surface

Here are three main reasons why the Administration and Congress need a deeper review to safeguard US and allied interests in freedom, peace, and prosperity.

First, Congress intended ambiguity in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which is the most important over-riding and legal determination of policy. While the TRA provided for a legal and political obligation to assist Taiwan’s self-defense, the law did not require in advance that the US “shall” help to defend Taiwan. Nonetheless, Congress did not intend to avoid helping Taiwan’s defense. The TRA is not an absolute security guarantee, because Congress intended to protect its prerogative and subject any future decision on war to action by Congress, not only the President. [3] Congress also did not seek to reconstruct a defense agreement.

The ambiguity allows for clarity or flexibility as needed. Moreover, the Six Assurances promised not to revise the TRA.

Second, ambiguity is not the fundamental problem. The Trump Administration, which was forward-leaning in strengthening ties with Taiwan and repairing the arms sales process in favor of regular notifications to Congress, did not throw “strategic ambiguity” overboard. Indeed, President Trump was not clear in an interview in August 2020, when he claimed that China knew what he would do if it invaded Taiwan. He failed to explain a stance to the Congress and country. Last October, while the State Department carefully considered the issue as deserving attention, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to ditch “strategic ambiguity” for “strategic clarity.”

So, what is the crux of the challenge? It is deterrence. Over the decades, support for Taiwan has been inconsistent and China-centric at times, but not due to the TRA’s ambiguity. Presidential decisions were weak, for example, in withholding arms sales, Cabinet-rank visits, or trade talks.

Deterrence needs Washington to act with consistency and credibility in strong diplomatic, economic, and military ties with Taipei. Deterrence needs Taipei to strengthen sufficient self-defense with urgent implementation of its Overall Defense Concept. Biden should continue Trump’s routine notifications to Congress of arms sales. Options to boost deterrence include combined exercises and select interoperability. Such steps would be substantive (not symbolic) and proactive (not scrambling to react, like in the 1995-1996 crisis).

Third, casting off “strategic ambiguity” would not be bold enough. Statements still wallow in the muddy waters of our “One China” Policy, which risks the mistaken view of US recognition that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The TRA did not discuss a “one China” concept. How should Biden (a uniquely qualified president who voted for the TRA in the Senate) clarify or redefine policy, including with consideration that the PRC commits genocide?

Messages remain murky. In April, the Biden Administration touted new guidelines for the Executive Branch’s contacts with Taiwanese officials, purported to be a liberalizing move. For example, Taiwan’s working-level officials may regularly attend meetings in US government buildings, including the State Department. 

However, Taiwan’s previous and current “ambassadors” met with then-Assistant Secretary David Stilwell at the State Department in July 2020. [4] Taiwan’s military officers have attended meetings at the Pentagon and INDOPACOM for decades. The State Department’s press statement on the guidelines still claimed an “unofficial relationship.” In reality, US and Taiwanese officials have interacted constantly and have concluded official agreements, including government-to-government Foreign Military Sales. In passing the TRA, Congress objected to and omitted the adjective “unofficial” for the relationship. 

Actually, the new guidelines mean backpedaling, because Pompeo, in January, completely rescinded the guidelines as “self-imposed restrictions.” The old guidelines stipulated that, inter alia, official travel was not permitted for defense officials above the level of office director or military officers above the rank of O6 (i.e., colonel, Navy captain), without the State Department’s approval.

The announcement left in its wake some questions for congressional oversight. Is the State Department providing to Congress the guidelines and all other parts of the policy on contacts? Do the guidelines adhere to the TRA and Taiwan Assurance Act? How is the State Department interfering in the Defense Department’s military-to-military exchanges (which included visits by US general and flag officers during the last Administration)? What are the new restrictions?

Current Strategy Lacks an Objective

Our strategy needs an objective. Policymakers merely tread water in calling for a “peaceful resolution.” Policy mantras allude to the process but avoid mention of any preferred outcome. Ironically, arguments in this debate focus on a US fight in a catastrophic conflict but not a US role in a peaceful settlement (e.g., commonwealth). The stakes demand a deep dive into the options for this role.

The strategic aim should be a strong and democratic Taiwan, so that it deters the PLA, remains a force for freedom in the global balance of power, and survives as a legitimate member in the international community. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that Taiwan is “a country that can contribute to the world, not just its own people,” answering Representative Young Kim at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March.

A coherent strategy with an objective also needs clearly-stated interests. Foremost, Taiwan’s geo-strategic position places it as the inter-locking piece to fortify US allies and to support US and allied interests in the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea, South China Sea, and Western Pacific.

Meanwhile, we should sink “unofficial” contacts and normalize further ties. Washington should lead in disarming Beijing’s political warfare and supporting Taipei’s international participation, particularly during this pandemic. Thus, diplomats should counter China’s fiction that UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 determined that Taiwan is a part of the PRC. In fact, that resolution of 1971 did not even mention Taiwan. We should resume talks under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, suspended after 2016, and start talks on a trade agreement.

The main point: A review of “strategic ambiguity” needs to focus on strategy, not ambiguity. Strategy needs an objective to move from stagnant water to reach a peaceful outcome.

[1] Nancy Bernkopf Tucker argued that “strategic ambiguity” originated earlier as an enduring tool of policy. She wrote that this tool even characterized the US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty of 1954 under President Dwight Eisenhower. See: Nancy Bernkopf Tucker (editor), Dangerous Strait (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

[2] In 1999, the House International Relations Committee debated about ambiguity in consideration of a bill called the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (not enacted). In 2001, President George W. Bush clearly stated the US obligation to do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself.” (ABC, April 25, 2001) In response, Senator Joe Biden wrote that “we now appear to have a policy of ambiguous strategic ambiguity. It is not an improvement.” (Washington Post, May 2, 2001) In contrast, Senator Richard Lugar, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, contended that Bush’s statement “reflected a common-sense appraisal of the strategic situation in Asia.” (Washington Times, May 17, 2001)

[3] Author’s interviews with Lester Wolff, Representative in the US House who worked on the passage of the TRA. The author dedicates this article to Wolff, who passed away at 102 years old on May 11, 2021.

[4] Author’s consultation with David Stilwell.